Alex, I’ll take word origins for $200: Listeria edition

I’m a sucker for history. There’s lots of cliches about it, but I find the stories of how we got today’s food safety world fascinating.

Back in the early days of Food Safety Talk, Don and I talked about some of the history of food safety and food microbiology. A lot of our material came from text that good friend and margarita connoisseur Carl Custer pulled together as well as IAFPs 100 year anniversary document.

EID has a regular feature on the history of disease word origins and this month’s topic is Listeria.

Listeria [lis-teʹre-ə]

A genus of small, gram-positive, rods, Listeria was first isolated by Murray in 1924 as Bacterium monocytogenes. In 1927, Pirie proposed the genus Listerella in honor of British surgeon Sir Joseph Lister (1827–1912), an early advocate of antiseptic surgery. It was not until 1939 that Pirie realized that this genus had already been taken by a slime mold (also named in honor of Lister, by Jahn in 1906). In 1940, he proposed the alternative name Listeria. The mouthwash Listerine was also named after Lister, in 1979 (1879, thanks for the clarification commenters -ben) by Lawrence and Bosch, when in was marketed as a surgical antiseptic.


Hof H. History and epidemiology of listeriosis. FEMS Immunol Med Microbiol. 2003;35:199–202. 

Pirie JH. Listeria: change of name for a genus bacteria. Nature. 1940;145:264.


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About Ben Chapman

Dr. Ben Chapman is a professor and food safety extension specialist at North Carolina State University. As a teenager, a Saturday afternoon viewing of the classic cable movie, Outbreak, sparked his interest in pathogens and public health. With the goal of less foodborne illness, his group designs, implements, and evaluates food safety strategies, messages, and media from farm-to-fork. Through reality-based research, Chapman investigates behaviors and creates interventions aimed at amateur and professional food handlers, managers, and organizational decision-makers; the gate keepers of safe food. Ben co-hosts a biweekly podcast called Food Safety Talk and tries to further engage folks online through Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and, maybe not surprisingly, Pinterest. Follow on Twitter @benjaminchapman.